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London’s calling

London remakes the East End with goals beyond 2012 in mind

SCOTT HEAVEY/GETTY IMAGES

Eton Dorney: Rowing Centre near Windsor will host over 1,000 shells.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,’’ Shakespeare wrote. “Nor the course of planning an Olympics,’’ he might have added.

Ever since 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Summer Games, the city and its citizens have been gearing up to host a socko event. But in August, the gala five rings were upstaged by images of riots on TVs and computer screens around the world.

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But with customary steadfastness and resilience, the British organizers have been keeping their attention fixed on next summer’s competition schedule, July 27 through Aug. 12. The Paralympics follow from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.

Many Olympics facilities are already completed - under budget and ahead of schedule. That means visitors can preview the venues not just in London but also in Weymouth (sailing) and Eton Dorney (rowing).

LONDON’S CALLING

The only city to hold the Games three times, London hosted the Olympics in 1908 (events included tug of war) and 1948 (competitors brought their own towels since Britain was under postwar austerity).

While the royal wedding in April symbolized heritage - something old - the Olympics represent something new - the redevelopment of the city’s East End. Formerly a derelict district of wharves and warehouses, the area is the site for the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, nine other sports venues, and the main Olympic Village. The area was unaffected during the recent unrest.

For 400 years, the East End welcomed waves of refugees: from 16th-century French Huguenots to 19th-century Eastern European Jews to today’s Bangladeshis. The district also served as home turf for George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle (Cockneys traditionally are born within earshot of St. Mary-le-Bow’s church bells) and for Jack the Ripper (his murderous spree centered around Whitechapel).

In the 1970s, tourists rarely ventured farther east than the Tower of London. However, a geographic shift eastward started in the 1980s with redevelopment of Canary Wharf, once among the busiest docks in the world. It has morphed into a global financial center employing 100,000 people.

Then artists moved into the East End because of the low rents, and gentrification followed. Galleries and boutiques sprang up in Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and along Redchurch Street.

FROM BROWN TO GREEN

However, the adjacent industrial area around Stratford stagnated. When London won the Olympics bid, this district became the chief target for revitalization - and one of the largest urban regeneration projects in the world. Six hundred acres were bulldozed. After centuries of industry, the site was so polluted that authorities established a “soil hospital’’ to cleanse contaminants.

Now trucks and earthmovers churn around the spherical rise of the Olympic Stadium. “What is important is the legacy,’’ says Jacqueline French, a spokesperson for London and Partners, the official promotional agency for the city. “Nothing is built just for the Olympics. There will be no white elephants.’’

After the Games, the stadium will become home to the soccer team West Ham United. The Olympic Village will turn into affordable housing, former wastelands will burgeon with riverside parks, and Stratford will open the largest shopping center in Europe.

Of course, one man’s urban eyesore once provided someone else’s livelihood. Since 1905, H. Forman & Son purveyed top-quality smoked salmon from its East End factory. Seven years ago, the establishment found itself smack-dab on the spot of the future stadium.

After negotiations, the company relocated to the edge of Olympic Park. The new salmon-pink smokery and restaurant offer the best view of Olympic Stadium you can have without working on a construction crew.

Despite the front-row seat, managing director Lance Forman regrets the dismantling of the old East End, estimating that 30 percent of area companies went out of business. “That’s the other side of the story.’’ But he adds, “Although I was a skeptic to begin with, you can’t fail to be excited and inspired by having the Olympics here.’’

HALLOWED GROUNDS

While the Olympic Stadium is new, London will also use hallowed grounds for events.

“Get into two straight lines. Ready - go!’’ The screams of 90,000 fans greet a diverse group as people jog into the stadium and wave to the Royal Box. A few minutes later, these enthusiasts are clasping the 3-foot-tall Football Association Cup.

OK, those are sound effects and it’s only a replica of the world’s oldest soccer association trophy. And this “team’’ - with members ages 7 to 70 - doesn’t play for Chelsea or Manchester United. They’re on a tour at Wembley, England’s national stadium and the second-largest arena in Europe. At the 2012 Games, it will host the men’s and women’s soccer finals.

A quote from Pelé, the legendary Brazilian star of the 1960s and considered the best player ever, emblazons a stadium wall: “Wembley is the church of football. It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football.’’

Since Wembley runs events ranging from championships to concerts starring Jennifer Lopez, its management takes Olympic hoopla in stride. “We know how to do football, but the Olympics is special for us. Everyone’s been looking forward to it for so long,’’ says Adam Burrage, the stadium tour manager.

Likewise, Wimbledon doesn’t break a sweat about hosting the Olympics tennis competition. “It will be very much the same as the championships - but on a smaller scale,’’ says Eric White, Wimbledon’s travel trade and marketing manager. While the annual June tournament hosts 40,000 spectators daily, the Games will draw 30,000.

Olympics dates were juggled around Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world, since groundskeepers need three weeks between events to restore the turf.

SMOOTH SAILING

While hosting an Olympics isn’t a huge deal for Wembley or Wimbledon, it’s a humdinger for Weymouth, the setting for the sailing events. This seaside village (less than three hours by train from London) has slumbered since the 18th century when King George III “took the waters’’ in a none-too-successful attempt to cure his madness.

Grand Georgian facades arc along the 3-mile Esplanade dotted with palm trees. Next summer, 25,000 spectators on the shorefront will watch the Olympic races on giant viewing screens.

Weymouth sits on England’s 95-mile Jurassic Coast, which is imprinted with 185 million years of geologic history. England’s first Natural World Heritage Site, the area is rife with fossils and dinosaur footprints. In 2008, a fossil hunter found the 8-foot-long skull of a Pliosaur, an ancient 50-foot sea monster.

Crowned by Nothe Fort and a 16th-century castle built by King Henry VIII, the coast provides a winning backdrop for the races. “Good, clean air lips over the bank of Chesil Beach, while Portland acts as a wave barrier,’’ notes Jacqui Gisborne, a project coordinator. “And with the smallest tidal variation in England, there are no currents.’’

Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy will serve as the racing center, located a few minutes’ walk from the sailors’ Olympic Village. Reconfigured from a naval helicopter hangar, the Academy opened in November 2008 - first of the new Olympic venues to be completed. Four hundred men and women from more than 60 nations will compete

The non-nautical will find plenty of pastimes. Established in the 14th century by Benedictine monks, Abbotsbury Swannery is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans in the world. Visitors help swanherds at feedings, tossing grain to the feathered throng. The Portland Museum gives historical perspectives on shipwrecks, smugglers, spies, and pestilence: The Black Death plague of 1348 arrived in England through this port.

ROWING AND WINDSOR

While George III retreated to Weymouth, modern monarchs prefer Windsor.

Known to the equestrian set for the Royal Ascot race meet each June, the area also holds great significance for oarsmen because of the Henley Royal Regatta, the best-known rowing event in the world.

But Henley - with only two racing lanes - does not meet Olympic standards. Instead, rowers will vie at Eton Dorney Rowing Centre on Dorney Lake, near Windsor.

Set amid 450 acres of parklands, the facility features eight lanes. With 60 countries each bringing 33 boats plus spares, the site will accommodate more than 1,000 shells.

“Dorney has more wind than Henley,’’ says Dave Jones, who won gold for Britain in the men’s four at the 2010 world championships in Belarus. “The key for winning will be rowing well in wind.’’

Two miles to the east, Windsor Castle rises above the Thames. Built by William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion of 1066, it is the longest occupied castle in Europe. The 2012 Games will inspire a new look at the castle and many other landmarks: historic British icons seen through an Olympics lens.

Wimbledon, Wembley, Weymouth, and Eton-Dorney don’t need an Olympics to rank among the top sporting venues in the world. They are already there.

If you go...

2012 Summer Olympic Games

Tickets

In the United States, CoSport is the official company selling tickets and consumer hospitality packages that include accommodations, transportation, dining, and sightseeing options.

www.cosport.com

877-457-4647

Getting around

The Visitor Oyster Card, an electronic smartcard ticket, can save up to 50 percent on London tube trains, buses, trams, and trains; www.visitbritainshop.com.

Thames Clippersferries from the Embankment and London Eye to such tourist destinations as the Tate Modern, Tower of London, and Greenwich; www.thamesclippers.com.

London’s Barclays Cycle Hire, with 400 locations, is a public bike-sharing program for shorter treks around the capital; www.tfl.gov.uk/barclayscyclehire.

Olympic venues

Olympic Stadium: Blue Badge Guides lead tours to viewing points of venues; www.tour guides2012.co.uk.

Soccer - Wembley Stadium: Tours take visitors into the press conference room, dressing rooms, through the Players Tunnel, and up the Trophy Winners’ steps; www.wembleystadium.com.

Tennis - Wimbledon: Tours include Centre Court, No. 1 Court, press interview room, and admission to the museum; www.wimbledon.com.

Marathon: The route will start and end in The Mall, taking in sights including Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Hill, and the Houses of Parliament; www.london2012.com.

Sailing - Weymouth and Portland: SailLaser Weymouth offers rentals and instruction for every level from beginners to racers; www.sail-laser.com.

Rowing - Eton Dorney: From April to October the facility offers evening learn-to-scull sessions. The 450 acres of grounds are open to walkers and joggers; www.dorneylake.co.uk.

As dress rehearsalsfor the Games, London and other locations are hosting top-level competitions ranging from bicycling to beach volleyball. See the schedule at www.londonpreparesseries.com.

Information

Contact VisitBritain, Britain’s national tourism agency: www.visitbritain.com. For details about the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: www.london2012.com.

Risa Wyatt and Peter Schroeder can be reached at words@risawyatt.com and ptrschrdr@aol.com.
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